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Consumer Rep: We're Outgunned

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SAN FRANCISCO — Consumer advocates face an uphill battle at the National Association of Insurance Commissioners and other regulatory agencies, according to Birny Birnbaum.

Birnbaum, executive director of the Center for Economic Justice, Austin, Texas, a longtime insurance industry gadfly, earlier had announced that he would not be renewing his application to continue as an NAIC-funded consumer representative.

Insurers have virtually unlimited financial resources to convey their messages to regulators, Birnbaum said here at the NAIC’s winter meeting.

“Insurers spend tens of millions of policyholder-supplied funds to lobby for insurer interests, Birnbaum said. “In contrast, consumer interests have few such resources.”

The problem is a structural problem with regulatory agencies in general and is not the fault of insurance regulators, Birnbaum said.

But “the imbalance is on display at the NAIC, where over a thousand industry representatives – many of whom are former insurance regulators – are paid to present and press the industry viewpoint during and between NAIC meetings,” Birnbaum said.

Birnbaum said there are only a handful of consumer representatives, most of whom are volunteers. “The current consumer participation budget at the NAIC is $120,000 – less than the salary of one industry lobbyist,” Birnbaum said.

Unlike the insurer lobbyists, the consumer advocates have other jobs, and they do not make their money by volunteering time as consumer representatives.

Birnbaum suggested a number of strategies for strengthening the insurance consumer lobby.

One would be to create a public insurance counsel funded by a 50-cent fee on each insurance policy sold.

Regulators also could require insurers to ask consumers for permission to use policyholder funds for lobbying, Birnbaum said.

“Consumers should be presented with a choice – ‘Do you want any part of your premium to go to insurers for government relations, to a publicly-chartered consumer organization for consumer advocacy, or neither?” he said.

Elsewhere during the winter meeting, at the a consumer liaison session, Birnbaum said the NAIC has not acted to increase transparency since consumer reps asked it to operate in a more open fashion in 2007 and 2008.

“What we had noted was that the NAIC had started using more and more regulator-to-regulator meetings for things that didn’t involve discussions of individual companies or anything else that would have sensitive data,” Birnbaum said.

The discussions were made private “simply to shield the regulator discussions from the public,” Birnbaum said.